Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Gratitude and Thanks and More

Lorna and I attended the Thanksgiving service at church on Sunday at our home parish of St. John’s-by-the-Lake in Grand Bend.  Being by the Lake (Huron) is not the same as being at our cottage-by-the-sea in Prince Edward Island.  However, it is nice to be worshipping there again.  The priest preached a very good sermon on gratitude.  He covered a lot of territory including Aesop’s fable of Androcles and the Lion as well as the parable of the wicked tenants from last week’s Gospel where the master who planted a vineyard and the dastardly servants who not only wouldn’t give the master of the vineyard his due but instead killed the master’s some when he came to them.   Now that another Thanksgiving has come and almost gone my thoughts turn to what I am grateful for.  There is the usual of family, health, health care, hearth and home, security, and the opportunities I have had to worship God in different ways and in different places in the past year.

 I am also grateful that a friend brought to my attention a column by Rev. Bob Ripley who is as retired United Church minister.  Ripley was the senior minister at the most prominent United Church in London Ontario before retiring a few years ago.  Ripley has written a weekly column in the London Free Press for many years.  In the recent column, Ripley proclaimed that, in effect, he no longer believes in organized religion.  Ripley states unequivocally:

Where once I proclaimed the doctrines of Christianity with passion and sincerity, I am now convinced that religion, all religion, is man-made. As with the long line of deities dotting the history of our species, the idea of one God, Yahweh, made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, is our means to an end — to explain how we got here, for instance, or to avoid looking fate in the face or to gain an edge over our enemies.

The juxtaposition of this column, Thanksgiving, and the Gospel parable of a week ago is propitious.  I am, as I mentioned, grateful that I was made aware of the column.  I am no longer a regular reader of the Free Press for a number of reasons— which I don’t want to get into now— so I might well have missed it.  I am grateful for the column itself as it has caused me to reflect on my relationship to organized religion.  I am also grateful for the parable of the wicked tenants that was the subject of three sermons in the last two weeks. 

In my relatively short career as a parish priest I have said to myself and occasionally to others in a fit of satire or perhaps irony (I’m not sure which) that the only thing wrong with church is the people—they tend to mess things up, make it inconvenient, disappointing at times, and generally not what God intends—at least in my idea of what church should be.  In the parable (Matthew 21:33-46), Jesus is using the parable to criticize the religious authorities for the way they practice their religion:

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. 

I can understand why someone who has served as an ordained minister or priest for many years or even a few years becomes disillusioned about the institution and all its human shortcomings.   Ripley notes that his disenchantment with religion was one of the reasons he retired early from his church position.  Jesus certainly was critical of the religious leaders and many of the people in his day.  There is much to criticise in the church and its ‘cheap grace’ as Dorothee Solle calls it in her book Thinking About God which I am currently reading.  She cites this term of Dietrich Bonhoeffer where the church is coopted by the ruling powers of the society in which it resides whether it is the Germany of Hitler or the economic powers and systems of today.  She notes that Bonhoeffer pleads, “that the church should take the risk of setting out to proclaim God’s commands as being valid today, as concretely, exclusively and radically as can be conceived”.  The church should, as Ripley notes, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. 

Solle states that because we are fallible does not mean that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not ethics-free and the church should not be either, “That we are fallible people and can make mistakes (in discerning God’s will) did not lead Bonhoeffer to withdraw from a world of action”.  The church is indeed imperfect but Jesus did not come to abolish religion but rather to fulfill God’s command for God’s people.  We are called to discern God’s will and to follow God’s commandments even if our efforts will inevitably flawed.  Let us give thanks and praise the Lord. 

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